Select committees good; government policy not so good

Although my last job as a basement-dwelling, dog-walking, democratic-process-subverting cog in a corrupt machine was truly hateful, on the rare occasions I was let out of the office I had the pleasure of attending quite a few sessions of the various Select Committees for science, health and education. This was by far the best part of my job, because select committes are a genuinely inspiring feature of British politics.
 
Select Committees do their work in the way that I think most people hope all work is done in Parliament: a group of intelligent and interested MPs sit down with the leading experts in the field, listen to what they have to say on a particular subject, discuss with them their areas of disagreement and debate, read and question the evidence from all sides on an issue, and then do it again and again until the ways in which Government policy needs to evolove become clear. They then produce a report which discusses this whole process in an open and transparent way, and make non-partisan recommendations for the way forward. It is a beautiful, obvious and, above all, sensible way of creating policy, according to the evidence and opinions of those who will be most affected by policy decisions. 
 
Take homeopathy. Before the election, the Science and Technology Committee – chaired by the sadly departed Phil Willis (a Lib Dem) and a mix of members of the other major parties – took evidence and published a report on the efficacy of homeopathy. After following the process above, the Committee made its recommendations:

 

The Science and Technology Committee concludes that the NHS should cease funding homeopathy. It also concludes that the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) should not allow homeopathic product labels to make medical claims without evidence of efficacy. As they are not medicines, homeopathic products should no longer be licensed by the MHRA.

 

The Committee carried out an evidence check to test if the Government’s policies on homeopathy were based on sound evidence. The Committee found a mismatch between the evidence and policy. While the Government acknowledges there is no evidence that homeopathy works beyond the placebo effect (where a patient gets better because of their belief in the treatment), it does not intend to change or review its policies on NHS funding of homeopathy.

 
Beautiful. Clean, crisp, evidence-based policy recommendations, made by a Committee which despite having several Labour MPs contributing to the report – in the run-up to an election where they might well lose their seats – does not shy away from making robust criticism of Government policy where it is patent nonsense.
 
David Treddinick MP (he of astrology software expenses claims) promptly launched an Early Day Motion (basically, a Motion registering an objection to something Government is doing or not doing) attacking the Committee for various things, including taking evidence “from known critics of homeopathy” such as Bad Science’s Ben Goldacre – as if the only criterion for valid evidence would be that it comes from people who had never before criticised homeopathy! As far as I know, Paris Hilton has not publicly criticised homeopathy – no doubt she will not be overlooked next time evidence on its efficacy is required.

So, Select Committees are brilliant and Tredinnick is a bit of a loon: so far so good. Presumably, then, the Government will stop funding homeopathy? After all, the Committee is unequivocal in suggesting that the evidence supports this course of action, and David Cameron declared only two weeks ago that “I believe in evidence-based policy.” The perfect opportunity, one would think, to follow evidence-based policy and make savings at the same time.
 
The Government’s response to the SciTech Committee’s report was released a few days ago. Overall, it dismisses most of the original report’s recommendations – which were, let me stress, evidence-based – and says it will continue funding homeopathy. The most astonishing single sentence in an astonishing document is this: “There naturally will be an assumption that if the NHS is offering homeopathic treatments then they will be efficacious, whereas the overriding reason for NHS provision is that homeopathy is available to provide patient choice.”
 
The Conservative’s belief in evidence-based policy proves to be a fiction: ‘personal choice’ takes its place as the holy grail, just as it has in education policies such as free schools and the Academies Bill. This is where Select Committees run out of puff: while they are a fantastic idea, they are also totally toothless, with absolutely no ability to compel Government to take their recommendations seriously. Still, at least there is a silver lining to this depressing fact. The newest member of the Health Select Committee? Mr David Tredinnick MP.

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